“Interpreter of Maladies” is a collection of nine short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri that explores a diverse range of themes through admirable narrative styles and writing techniques. We enter the inner world of her fictitious characters through her powerful imagery and metaphors. The themes range from identity crises in the post-Partition era, communication gaps, immigrant experience and differences in relationships. The interlinked stories are evocative of the dispersion of Indians.
Communication gap is a recurrent theme throughout Lahiri’s stories. This difficulty is reflective of hostile relationships, failing marriages and emotional turmoil. It is a void that leads to unalterable complications between spouses. In “Temporary Matter”, we encounter Shoba and Shukumar going through a turbulent relationship. The reason for this discord is Shoba’s anger and frustration on the loss of her son. Since the death of her son, she has been getting distant from Shukumar and hardly speaks to him. The death of the son becomes a consequence for a communication barrier in marriage. Silence becomes a destructive element as they both become strangers and avoid each other at all costs although they reside under the same roof. It is only the power outage that enables them to reveal their unspoken secrets. Ultimately, in the end, the baby leads to dissolution of their relationship.
Difficulties in communication are also prevalent in “Interpreter of Maladies”. We confront Mr. Kapasi, a tour guide and interpreter of symptoms who barely speaks to his wife and drinks his tea in silence during the night. Formerly, he was fluent in many languages and wanted to be an interpreter for diplomats. However, his life did not turn out as he wanted and he now works as an interpreter for doctors, much to the dissatisfaction of his wife because his job reminded her of their son’s death. Similar to “Temporary Matter”, death of a child in this story too becomes a reason for communication breakdown and dwindling affections.
Mr. and Mrs. Das are also going through a loveless marriage. Their marriage is rampant with hostility and indifference. Both Mrs. Das and Mr. Kapasi are yearning for communication. When Mrs. Das asks Mr. Kapasi for his address to send the family pictures, he starts fantasizing about the possibility for communication and friendship with her which would reveal sorrowful secrets concerning marital problems. They both are very lonely and unhappy and Mr. Kapasi contemplates over the fact that sharing problems is feasible. However, Mrs. Das’s unpleasant revelation and the flying away of paper with Mr. Kapasi’s address eliminate all possibilities for communication and friendship. When the story comes to a close, everything in Mr. and Mrs. Das’s relationship remains unchanged due to Mrs. Das’s incapability to communicate her secret to her husband.
Another instance of lack of communication is prevalent in “Mrs. Sen”. The story focuses on the emotional tragedy of Mrs. Sen who is depressed, nostalgic and refuses to assimilate in a new country. Unlike Mala in “The Third and Final Continent”, she feels frustrated, confined and lonely and makes no efforts in adjusting to Western customs. No exchanges take place between Mr. Sen and her. She is unable to express her turmoil and her husband seems unable to comprehend what she is really going through. Moreover, following the accident, Mr. Das informs Eliot’s mother that Mrs. Das is sleeping, even though Eliot hears her weeping. When the story comes to a fold, Eliot informs his mother that he fine, although he is clearly in distress. Even Eliot is unable to convey his sources of anguish to his mother.
Another prevalent theme is that of fragmented perception, which is apparent in “Interpreter of Maladies”. Mr. Das always views Indian life through a guide book and lens of his camera that he always carries around. The camera is symbolic of limited perception. To him, like other Westerners, poverty and underdevelopment in India is exotic. He looks at it from a Western perspective. As a tourist, he romanticizes his surroundings. He finds the starving peasant’s miserable plight fascinating and takes a snap shot. He sees reality through a camera and is indifferent to the peasant’s predicament. He lives in his own world and perceives his environment the way he likes to. He also takes a picture of Bobby when he is surrounded by the dangerous monkeys. This is indicative of his self-centrism, selfishness and insensitivity. He fails to connect emotionally with India, the home of his parents, owing to his exotic and warped view of Indian life. He dismisses the dilemma of Indian life and his marriage. The snapshots of his family are mere fabrications of a harmonious and happy family life. He refuses to acknowledge the complexities of life.
There are other characters besides Mr. Das who do not see the complete picture. Mrs. Das’s glasses enable her to see others through a tint and prevent people from really seeing her. Her window is faulty and does not roll down, which thwarts her from seeing the world outside the taxi. In addition, Mr. Kapasi looks at her through the rearview mirror. He, therefore, cannot get a complete picture of her. He does not suspect that Bobby is the offspring of a man other than Mr. Das. He sees them as living in harmony. This segmented perception of characters is a reminder of Aadam and Naseem from Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” – where Aadam loves Naseem in fragments and eventually complications in marriage occur. Furthermore, Mr. Das’s denial of reality is similar to the ‘optimism disease’ in “Midnight’s Children” – a situation where people live in denial, ignoring everyday realities, which is contagious and leads to detrimental consequences in the long-term.
Another reminiscent theme apparent throughout Lahiri’s stories is Indian diaspora – which refers to the influx of Indians in countries such as America, England and so on. It relates to the dilemma and disconnection that Indians face in the West. According to Ardhendu De, “The dilemma is: it is painful to stay but it is difficult to return. The migrant belongs to both worlds and at the same time to none.” Characters are emotionally connected and attached to India. They relate themselves to India. For instance, Mrs. Sen preserves her memory by wearing her saris, cutting vegetables with a special blade and fish – a reminder of home. Mr. Pirzada feels personally disconnected from his family that lives in India. India is the focus of all stories. It is the home country and metaphoric for peace and unity. Characters often experience trying periods of remorse, alienation and isolation in foreign lands. They struggle with identity and preservation of Indian traditions. Fear of rejection, longing for home country and losing their identities were inherent facets of their immigrant experiences. They also struggle with cultural clashes and disconnection from loved ones. To maintain Indian traditions and conventions while accepting Western customs is a process Indians have to learn to accept. Mala successfully integrates into the Western culture and feels comfortable, much to the appreciation of her husband – they both incorporate successfully into American life – which is the ultimate source of their happiness. On the contrary, it is extremely difficult for Mrs. Sen to accept Western ideals. Furthermore, Twinkle is mesmerized by the Christian iconography she discovers in many places of her house, which Sanjeev disapproves. However, being enthralled by Christian objects does not denote that Twinkle has forsaken the culture of her home country. It suggests a triumphant transition in a new country.
Marginalized minority also composes the themes of “A Real Durwan” and “The treatment of Bibi Haldar”. Boori Ma is a fragile old woman who works as a caretaker. She claims to have been dislocated following the Partition. On the other hand, Bibi Haldar takes care of inventories. In a sorry state of affairs, both work for extended hours in horrendous conditions and are paid low wages by the exploitative upper classes. This situation is a reflection of how people usually treated members of lower castes who were vulnerable to unfair treatment. It shows resentment towards minorities. Bibi Haldar suffers from an unidentified ailment. She is sprinkled with holy water, advised to lose and gain weight, stand on her head and to eat eggs in milk. Yet none of these prove to be remedies to her sickness. She is denied access to appropriate healthcare because the residents of the locality where she lived perceived women as worthless creatures. The town people come to the conclusion that she is in dire need of a man. This is reflective of South-Asian mentality of a male chauvinistic society that women need men to complete them and be looked after. According to a society with unbridled male domination, domestic chores such as cleaning, cooking and caring for a man are aspects that make up a woman. However, in the end, it is Bibi Haldar who proves everyone wrong and looks after her child without any helping hand of a male.
Last but not the least, relationships and marriages are intensely convoluted in the stories. We are presented with conflicted characters. Sanjeev and Twinkle, despite having a love marriage, fail to live up to each other’s expectations and are strangers to each other. Their interests, secrets and desires vary. Sanjeev is therefore skeptical regarding his love for Twinkle. The death of a son takes a toll on Shukumar and Shoba’s marriage and gradually causes them to become psychologically secluded from each other and leads to their disintegration. The story “Third and Final Continent” is the only positive example of a blissful result of a marriage, where spouses prove that disconnection can be closed through sharing experiences. As the narrator recalls his previous years, he is astounded by the fact that he and his wife were once strangers. Nicholas Gipe also comments, “Love and tradition are always at the heart of the story, and the characters who find happiness are always those who can embrace their present circumstance while at the same time never forget their Indian roots.” Finally, the stories “Interpreter of Maladies” and “Sexy” focus on infidelities which show that there are no restrictions to love – it is not bound with strict morals. Moreover, Mr. Kapasi is discontented with his wife and gets momentarily attracted to Mrs. Das, until she makes a confession of her deceitfulness.
Lahiri’s writing style is deceptively simple and straight-forward. The simple narrative style enables us to follow her in a smooth pace. She uses neither inflated words nor complex descriptions; nonetheless, the stories have a strong impact and there are profound sentiments involved which evoke our pathos through her ingenious usage of metaphors and imagery. It is this brilliant, figurative writing technique that makes us feel like spectators to on-going events. We can practically feel what the characters are feeling. There is a high amount of suspense which grips us to the core and keeps us engrossed till the end as we become anxious to know what follows next. We can feel the characters’ pain and emotional turmoil which is probably what make it an undeniably striking aspect of all stories and make Lahiri such a successful author.